I had the privilege of attending an Ash Wednesday Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, near Catholic University in NE Washington DC this week.
Under a dreary winter sky we walked toward the large cathedral, a few others blowing in alongside at the end of this busy workday. The large wooden doors welcomed us into the immense Basilica, where some hundreds were gathering to mark the start of this impending liturgical season.
I haven’t often made a big production out of Lent, in my personal life nor in congregational settings (production might be the wrong word here—observance?), though I’ve increasingly made varied attempts to recognize, honor, and live into it at some level over the years. Sometimes us Protestants tend to forget about Lent until Holy Week. Better late than never?
After finding a pew somewhere in the middle of this huge church, we sang a processional hymn. Many voices joined the cantor, singing; “Again we keep this solemn fast, a gift of faith from ages past, this Lent which binds us lovingly, to faith and hope and charity.”
It got me to thinking about the gift(s) of tradition—here we stood, as many have stood before us, in this vast, holy space—the largest Catholic church in North America. I am one who is quick to question, wonder, and ask whether various traditions, rituals and observances are worthwhile—Why are we doing this? When did it start? What purpose does it serve? What is its intent? How does this fit in the larger picture? Is there some Scriptural connection or basis? Is it still life-giving?
The next line of the hymn we sang went: “More sparing, therefore, let us make the words we speak, the food we take, our sleep, our laughter, ev’ry sense; learn peace thru holy penitence.”
Sitting in this vast, austere setting, with the wind blowing harshly outside, and pew after pew of darkly clad worshippers stretching out in front of me, it was easy to get into the spirit of “sparing.” I felt ready to abandon all extravagance for the next 40 days. Ready to swear off dessert and good wine. Ready to speak only when needed. To limit my too-frequent (and ill-fated) attempts at humor.
Could such restraint really lead me on a path of holiness and deeper connection this season of Lent? I think it actually could. I understand the possibility for “traditionalism” or “legalism”—but I also understand rhythm and season and intentionality. And if one’s heart is to seek fullness or satisfaction elsewhere than in the usual outlets—good food, glib conversation, excessive entertainment—I have to think one might well find it.
The idea of putting ashes on the forehead, as best history can remember, began about 1000 years ago. As I left my pew and stood before this graying, wise-countenanced African-American priest, and heard him say in a serious voice: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”—it had the intended effect. It reaffirmed the words of the hymn we had moments before sung, and I was ready to “more sparing make” quite a few things.
In the end, I haven’t necessarily decided to give anything up—except perhaps, as Pope Francis reminded, indifference—but I do long to give in to this desire to be mindful of what I eat and how much, what I say and how, where I give my time and to what, and see if this old tradition might have plenty of life left in it. I suspect I won’t be disappointed.
THE WESTMINSTER SHORTER CONFESSION famously says that the “chief end of man (sic) is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” This classic theological assertion is held with conviction by many in the Reformed tradition and beyond. God created us to give him (or her?) glory. The point of the universe is to glorify God.
It is often assumed that the way we glorify God is through worship. And worship is often understood as: singing songs on a Sunday morning, hearing a sermon, putting some money in the collection plate, and drinking some stale coffee afterward while dissecting the second point of the sermon or talking about the upcoming bake sale. Continue Reading..
For many Christian communities in this Empire called the United States, Holy Week has been largely commercialized, commodified and sanitized. Profound themes present in Holy Week of state violence, murder without recourse of marginalized individuals and communities, and the subverting of oppression through revolutionary acts have been diluted for the comfort of the masses and the maintenance of power. Continue Reading..
It is Holy Week. The week we recall Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. His final week with his disciples. His actions in the temple. His perplexing parables. His final meal. His agonizing last hours. The uncertainty of Saturday. The joy of Sunday morning.
It is a week of central significance to anyone claiming to be, or aspiring to be, a disciple of Jesus. One of my favorite weeks as a pastor. Also one of the busiest. Continue Reading..
Holy Week begins this Sunday. It is a familiar week, beginning with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. But maybe so familiar that we still aren’t quite hearing the full story.
Marcus Borg reminds us that there was not one, but two processions entering Jerusalem that year. Two very different processions. “They proclaimed two very different and contrasting visions of how this world can and should be: the kingdom of God versus the kingdoms, the powers, of this world. The former is about justice and the end of violence. The latter are about domination and exploitation. On Friday, the rulers of this world kill Jesus. On Easter, God says “yes” to Jesus and “no” to the powers that executed him.
Thus Palm Sunday announces the central conflict of Holy Week. The conflict persists. That conflict continues wherever injustice and violence abound. Holy Week is not about less than that.”
In the spirit of the One who came in peace, and in the wake of this week’s continued violence in our world, a prayer for peace. May it bless you this week.
Great God, who has told us “Vengeance is mine,” save us from ourselves, save us from the vengeance in our hearts and the acid in our souls. Save us from our desire to hurt as we have been hurt, to punish as we have been punished, to terrorize as we have been terrorized. Give us the strength it takes to listen rather than to judge, to trust rather than to fear, to try again and again to make peace even when peace eludes us. We ask, O God, for the grace to be our best selves. We ask for the vision to be builders of the human community rather than its destroyers. We ask for the humility as a people to understand the fears and hopes of other peoples. We ask for the love it takes to bequeath to the children of the world to come more than the failures of our own making. We ask for the heart it takes to care for all the peoples of Afghanistan and Iraq, of Palestine and Israel as well as for ourselves. Give us the depth of soul, O God, to constrain our might, to resist the temptations of power to refuse to attack the attackable, to understand that vengeance begets violence, and to bring peace–not war–wherever we go. For You, O God, have been merciful to us. For You, O God, have been patient with us. For You, O God, have been gracious to us. And so may we be merciful and patient and gracious and trusting with these others whom you also love. This we ask through Jesus, the one without vengeance in his heart. This we ask forever and ever. Amen —A Prayer for World Peace,
by Sister Joan Chittister, of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie (source)
Apparently there is a new category for the less-than-faithful-church-goer: not the ‘unchurched’ or ‘de-churched’ or ‘sick of church’ or even the ‘nones’, no, these new targets of evangelical exuberance are the semi-churched. Which probably describes many of you. Probably even me. Who are the semi-churched? Those who go to church usually, but not always.
Well, the word is out. A pastor in Michigan is on to your scheming and conniving ways. You’d think a pastor concerned with the kingdom of God might have an issue to speak about like hunger, or armed conflict, or global warming, or local housing issues, or building up his own community. Because there are real problems and challenges facing churches, neighborhoods and all of us.
But instead, who is the target? That empty pew from last Sunday. The pew that should have been filled with the sophomore college student in his congregation who didn’t show up last Sunday, or the middle-aged couple who went up north for a few weekends this summer, or the single mom who works weekends, or the executive who sometimes just needs a quiet morning at home. These folks? They’re the real problem.
Using words like intermittent, nominal and derelict, Pastor Kevin DeYoung goes on in today’s post to note such wonderful things as:
going to church is more important than having french toast for breakfast.
try cutting your weekend visit to the grandkids short by a day so you can be in church on Sunday. (After all, you still have the whole day of Saturday to spend with them! Well, part of Saturday, if you include traveling time. OK, just don’t expect to see them as much.)
enjoy going to your cottage for the weekend? Well don’t. Or at least, don’t enjoy it too much, and feel guilty if you also went during Labor Day.
feel like going to church is a chore? Well, consider Jesus: he went to the cross. [YES, HE GOES THERE]. He compared the challenge of showing up to a Sunday service with ‘the way of the cross.’ Enough said.
Perhaps you think I’m being too hard on this pastor. And maybe I am. But remember: he’s being even harder on you. Not fazed by the above? Well, he saves the best for last:
If you don’t show up to church every single Sunday, there’s a decent chance that you’re actually going to hell.
“Who knows how many people God saves ‘as through fire’?”
Who knows indeed? Apparently someone has at least some idea. Better to be safe than sorry. Thinking about skipping church for that brunch with friends? Think again. You might consider skipping the roasted sweet potatoes rather than find yourself roasted for eternity.
Let me close this commentary by noting that I’m grateful for the community I find in many church settings. I’m grateful for my own community here in DC. And yes, it is nice—and important—to see each other regularly. Any group seeking to develop community needs time together. But is it the way of Jesus to become legalistic about showing up to a one-hour service? Is it loving to treat people like children, wag your finger, and say: “You’d better be there…!”? I think it communicates trust when we treat people like adults and assume that when they aren’t in our presence, they may well have a good reason for it. Many folks who miss Sunday gatherings do so for very legitimate reasons: work responsibilities, travel, family visiting, illness, transportation challenges or gasp, serving their communities! Why not give people the benefit of the doubt instead of first thinking: “They’re up to no good, those slackers!” And if there is a concern about someone in particular, the place to address that is within the context of that relationship, not a general blog post bashing more than half your congregation (and all congregations).
As a side note, many have found that churches aren’t even the best place to nourish their spiritual journeys, and after reading a post like this, one can hardly blame them. Many find time in nature, at home in silence, in a yoga studio, on a boat, or getting their hands dirty in a community garden as much more spiritually-invigorating endeavors.
In fact, it could even be argued that too much church attendance isn’t good for you. It anesthetizes you to thinking that you’re making a huge difference in the world or that you’ve done your Christian duty, and that now you can get on with your week. It can insulate you to one particular way of thinking. Not that the writer is advocating church attendance as the only thing one should do as a Christian, but you could come away from the post thinking it’s at the top of the list. The piece—to my reading—is fraught with legalism, the need to control, and a yearning for ‘how it used to be.’
Well, it’s a new day. Unless you’re planning to attend a certain church in the mitten state on Sunday. In that case, best be early.
I read Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck recently. There’s this terrific moment when one of the main characters, Pilon, has a sacred encounter with sea gulls:
“These birds are flying across the forehead of the Father. Dear birds, dear sea gulls, how I love you all. Your slow wings stroke my heart as the hand of a gentle master strokes the full stomach of a sleeping dog, as the hand of Christ stroked the heads of little children. Dear birds,” he thought, “fly to our Lady of Sweet Sorrows with my open heart.”
And then he said the loveliest words he knew, “Ave Maria, gratia plena –”
There was, nor is, nor ever has been a purer soul than Pilon’s at that moment… A soul washed and saved is a soul doubly in danger, for everything in the world conspires against such a soul. “Even the straws under my knees,” says Saint Augustine, “shout to distract me from prayer.”
Pilon’s soul was not even proof against his own memories; for, as he watched the birds, he remembered that Mrs. Pastano used sea gulls sometimes in her tamales, and that memory made him hungry, and hunger tumbled his soul out of the sky. Pilon moved on, once more a cunning mixture of good and evil.”
We looked at Jesus in the desert at our house church gathering this past Sunday, and noted how this episode of temptation came right after a high point: his baptism in the Jordan River. Is this paradigmatic of human life? Are we most vulnerable when we’ve just come through a profound spiritual moment?
Lent is a season to consider new spiritual practices, or to incorporate some new habits. Yet, as Augustine notes, even our best intentions are easily undone by distractions shouting at us from around and beneath us. This is probably true these days as ever, amid Facebook notifications, Twitterfeeds, and busy schedules. But that also makes this season of Lent as needed as ever.
In the coming weeks, we might do well to intentionally spend some time in the straw, adding a new spiritual discipline or practice, while paying attention to what it is that distracts us from these higher pursuits.
And who knows, perhaps a moment of sublimity such as Pilon knew will come our way.
A fellow pastor recently wrote a recent column entitled, “Why Conservative Churches Attract Young People.” My interest was immediately piqued, as someone who is also interested in helping people of all ages cultivate their spiritual lives, including ‘young people.’
In the post, Aaron Vriesman, who pastors a church on the north side of Holland, Michigan, begins: “As a 33 year-old minister in the CRC, I can say with both personal and professional experience that conservative churches do indeed draw young adults. In particular, churches that have a self-consciously high view of Scripture, a commitment to the creeds and confessions, traditional stances on marriage and sexuality, and work to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ actually do draw young adults.”
I have no doubt that this is the case. He goes on to note some of the reasons, some of which I agree with, and some of which I might view from a slightly different angle.
To provoke thought, the article is prefaced with: “Why would young adults be attracted to conservative churches? Aren’t young adults more educated and scientific in their view of the world? Aren’t young adults more accepting of premarital sex and gay relationships? Aren’t young adults more interested in communities of dialogue than cold hard doctrine?”
I’ll let you read his reasons in full, so that I’m not taking any parts of this out of context. (quotes italicized)
Young adults want authenticity. All people, but young people especially, appreciate people who are up front about who they are and what they are about. As advertisements everywhere attempt to lure people into spending money with attractive images and promises, young people are constantly being played. Give it to me straight. Don’t tell me what you think I want to hear. Tell me where you stand and then I can form my own opinion. Don’t be a jerk about it, but at least be honest. Some churches shy away from Bible passages that might offend certain groups or avoid verses about God’s judgment because it makes God appear unloving. Conservative churches with a higher view of Scripture are not shy about anything the Bible says. They will read and preach on the uncomfortable Bible texts. Even those that equate divorce with adultery, tell wives to submit to husbands and spell out horrifying disaster for sinners. Since conservative churches are not worried about political correctness of any kind, they present the true God and Jesus Christ in all authenticity, with (what some would say) “warts” and all. Even if some young adults disagree with what they hear, they usually respect a straightforward message without spin.
My response. I agree, young adults want authenticity. Aaron correctly notes that our culture has much shallow, get-your-attention-and-your-dollars gimmicky stuff going on. Something deeper and more substantive does indeed have a certain draw.He notes, “Give it to me straight. Don’t tell me what you think I want to hear.” He goes on to note that conservative churches don’t shy away from certain biblical texts. His examples consist of divorce, submission of women to their husbands, and judgment for sin (read between the lines: hell). How can they be so daring as to talk about things so culturally against the grain? Because “they’re not worried about political correctness of any kind.”
I’d like to push back slightly. There is indeed a culture that would take issue with people equating divorce with adultery, with endorsing repressive measures against women, and with fire-and-brimstone theology. So in this sense, yes, these conservative churches are ‘against the grain.’ But let’s think about context for a moment. Vriesman preaches in West Michigan in a very conservative area, in a very conservative congregation, likely among largely rural congregants who grew up in such a conservative milieu. So in fact, what he is saying should be turned around. In his context, preaching these things is exactly what people want and expect to hear. It is not against the grain. It is politically-correct, because if he were to suddenly start preaching a more progressive message that divorce is much more complicated than simply equating it with adultery (which everyone knows intuitively, but has to listen to repeated sermons to be convinced otherwise), that God loves everyone including divorced folks, that women and men should equally respect each other, and that perhaps our view of God ought to transcend a Puritan, fire-breathing, sinners-in-the-hands-of an angry God—if this was his approach, he would be questioned. In his environment, sticking with a conservative approach is exactly the politically correct thing to do.
He goes on to say that this approach communicates to people ‘the true God’ and Jesus Christ ‘in all authenticity.’ Hmmm… The hubris to assume your view and only your view displays God as he actually is (rather than our ideas of God) is in fact the kind of thing that causes young people outside of the bubble he is operating in to flee from churches. Because they know it simply isn’t true, if anyone has taken the time to really wrestle with and engage traditions outside of their own, be it any of the many other Christian traditions, as well as other faiths. (See the excerpt of Chapter 6 of my book, An (Un)Safe Place, on Patheos).
In fact, many of these conservative churches supposedly teaching about Jesus ‘in all authenticity,’ often fail to communicate the Jesus who taught us to love our neighbor as ourselves, to love our enemies, to practice reconciliation at all costs, to respond to violence with forgiveness. These same churches consistently favor a militaristic approach to foreign policy, which looks like anything but ‘the authentic Jesus’, they often favor social policies that marginalize the poorest and weakest in our society, and one could go on. The point being that there is a healthy diversity of thought on what it means to follow ‘the real Jesus,’ and you better have a seat next to the angels in heaven before you claim to alone have insight into ‘the true God.’
So back to the initial point: I agree young people want authenticity. I think all people do. The examples mentioned may well be authentic, but they hardly put conservative churches in sole possession of authenticity.
Young adults want to know the real God. Many people today build their own gods with the bits and pieces they like from various sources, but what is God really like? Some churches present Scripture as human writing, introducing Biblical texts with, “Paul says…” or “David says…” Conservative churches will say, “The Lord says…” or “God’s Word tells us…” Human opinions are a dime a dozen, but the Bible is not another human opinion. It is God’s truth, and so it is worth getting up early on a weekend to hear.
My response. “Many people today built their own gods with bits and pieces they like from various sources.” Yes they do. Sources like the Heidelberg Catechism, or John Calvin, Saint Augustine, or various Bible passages. WE ARE ALL guilty of doing this. Me too. Can we do otherwise? In our discussion at the pub the other night we asked, “Do we sometimes confuse our idea(s) of God with God?” The answer, regardless of our approach, is YES. We are human beings, therefore it is impossible we will (in this life), have a pure, unfiltered view of who God is. To say anything less is dishonest.
Does that mean we are in the dark? Not at all. We do have the Scriptures, we have the witness of various theological traditions through history, and so on. But it is only honest to acknowledge that there exists, and has always existed, a multiplicity of such traditions, even in biblical times. The Bible itself is not always in agreement with itself. Vriesman notes, “Some churches present Scripture as human writing…” as if this is some sort of indictment. Scripture is human writing! Perhaps he forgot his seminary training, that a Reformed view of the inspiration of Scripture is organic: God’s Spirit at work through human beings, including all of their own personalities, character, humanity, and setting. And of course, humanity is humanity. Broken, flawed, with a perspective inescapably rooted in one’s own self. To pretend that we don’t have to say, “Paul said… this,” but “Isaiah writes this…” is to miss out on fully understanding the very means God chose to use to communicate himself to us! To simply say, “God says… ____,” without doing the hard work of understanding what God was saying originally in and through the very human authors, in and through its very context and to its first hearers, is to endanger one to presumptively miss out on what God is saying today, all the while claiming to speak for “the real God.” (See my earlier post: What I meant to say, for a discussion on the complicated reality of communication and interpretation, then and now).
Young people can see through such unnuanced approaches, and are decreasingly satisfied with them. More and more young people do want to know God as he really is, which is why they aren’t satisfied to sit in the pew and be told that we know exactly who God and what he is like. They are not satisfied with being told: “you’re not allowed to do any spiritual exploration on your own outside our own doctrinal boundaries, because that is ‘dangerous’.” Such fear of exploration may well betray the fact that one doesn’t really believe what one claims to believe. And of course, the implication that conservative churches are the only place to encounter ‘the real God’ implies that any other sort of church will only connect you with something less. My experience (and many others), would say that God can be met in a variety of settings.
Young adults hunger for meaning beyond themselves. The mainstream culture’s gospel of toleration and acceptance is loud and constant. While this can be a smooth elixir to swallow, the net result is a sour stomach of uncertainty and meaninglessness. Is there anything that is truly right and wrong? Is life’s ultimate goal just being nice to everybody and never rock the boat? Hearing about the ultimate truth from God’s own Word gives a measure of meaning beyond popular opinion and greater than our own selves. Truth that confirms what we already feel and believe only betrays itself as our own personal truth. Truth greater than ourselves by definition will challenge our views, prick our hearts, cause us to humble ourselves and submit to God’s way. As awkward and unpopular as God’s way might be, its superior source and loving purpose is compelling.
My response. “The mainstream culture’s gospel of toleration and acceptance is loud and constant.” Good! Then perhaps the message of Jesus has been getting through. Jesus tolerated and accepted people, people who were regularly dismissed from access to God through the religious institutions of the day: the poor, the prostitutes, the tax collectors, those labeled “sinners.” The people he had the most problem with were the religious ones who didn’t practice the ‘toleration’ and ‘acceptance’ Jesus knew God extends toward all his broken humanity. Apparently it gives this writer a ‘sour stomach’ to imagine that we should practice such love, tolerance, and acceptance.
To go from this initial point to asking, ‘Is there anything that is truly right and wrong?’ is a complete disconnect. Extending God’s love doesn’t mean anything goes. It means everyone is welcome. It means we become the love of God on display. And as we do that, people begin to experience healing to their brokenness, and consider ways to begin living in wholeness and newness. And, this writer forgets, when we act in this way, it does rock the boat. Jesus accepted and loved such people, and was constantly berated by the institution that claimed to speak for God: “This man welcomes sinners, and eats with them.” “This one is a drunkard and a glutton.”
I agree with his final point, that truth greater than ourselves will challenge our views and prick our hearts. I’m simply wondering whether such truth is ever spoken in the kinds of communities he seems to be representing. Would Jesus, himself a young person, be welcome in these churches with his radical displays of love and acceptance?
Young adults resonate with sin. They are familiar with the suffering that comes from broken relationships, dead-end jobs, brittle commitments and love with strings attached. Even a self-centered and narcissistic generation like mine has burning questions about why so many awful things happen in the world. Preaching the reality of sin has a way of bringing light to the elusive suffering that is so apparent everywhere. Some churches might call for awareness, dialogue, or assistance programs in response to the world’s problems. Some young adults are attracted to this because they feel the ache of sin and want to solve its problems. But such human efforts mostly produce fatigue and frustration. Sin, according to the Bible, is actually a spiritual problem that cannot be defeated by human efforts. The truth, pure and simple, is that we need a Savior. Instead of trying harder, we conquer sin in ourselves only as much as we trust God to work through us. This leads us to open ourselves to God’s grace that comes by faith. Grace calls for human activity, but activity that is motivated by thanksgiving and love for God, not a better world as an end in itself.
My response. Here I have a lot of agreement with the author. Many of us are indeed familiar with the suffering that comes from the things he notes. Suffering that comes from inside of us, as well as suffering that is far beyond any one of us (famine, natural disasters, war, etc). He notes that “some churches might call for awareness, dialogue, or assistance programs.” His solution is simply to “preach the reality of sin,” because if we do all this hard work of increasing awareness, discussing solutions, and working toward improving things will result simply in ‘a better world as an end in itself.’ Imagine. A better world? Is that it? Let’s stop before we get to that point. Let’s instead focus on ‘spiritual problems.’ I agree that humanity is sinful and broken. I agree that God brings healing through Jesus. However, I balk at the notion that ‘a better world’ is not an end in itself, and that nothing can change unless we remind everyone that we can’t actually do anything. In fact, if we paid attention, we’d see that non-Christians everywhere are working hard to effect real change in our world, and we would do well to begin to partner with them, rather than hide in our circles commiserating with each other over the futility of it all.
Not all conservative churches attract young adults. Some conservative churches simply attempt to hold on to the past. Those that recoil at different ministry tactics or refuse to try the newer (or older) worship music reflect the idolatry of comfort zones, which undermines the gospel’s power even if it is accurately presented from the pulpit. The key component of conservative churches that attract young adults is the visible display of God’s love. Before and after worshiping together, the love of God is visible in the way people greet and speak to one another. People of a different color or socio-economic class are welcomed with the same smiles and greetings as everyone else. Truths are held without compromise but questions and discussions are always welcome because that is how we learn. The conservative moral standards are used to encourage sinners in their emerging faith, not as merit badges of superiority.
My response. Agreed! Not all conservative churches attract young adults. But neither do all progressive churches. Or all of any kind of church. I also agree that the key component in a church attracting young adults is the visible display of God’s love. However, I think it goes far beyond creating a welcoming environment over coffee before and after the service. It comes not in simply being nice to someone ‘of a different color.’ It comes not by trumpeting our ‘conservative truths and moral standards.’ It comes by people living in genuine community throughout the week, people who can rely upon each other (and I know this often is practiced very well in conservative churches), but also by people living sacrificially on behalf of a broken world. People like the early church, who modeled Christ’s teaching by having everything in common, by taking in the poor, by suffering to declare that the way of a suffering Jewish teacher was superior to the way of Rome and Caesar.
He notes in the end that ‘questions and discussions are always welcome because that is how we learn.’ This seems at odds with his earlier comments which dismiss dialogue in favor of preaching and ‘cold hard doctrine.’ I agree, we learn when we honestly engage views differently from our own, when we admit we haven’t figured everything out, least of all God. This approach, in my own experience, is refreshing to young people who have too often experienced the opposite.
The article closes as follows:
“At the end of the day, people need to see that God’s truth as well as his grace and love are more than theoretical beliefs. God is true and his Son Jesus Christ is mighty to save. Churches that show Jesus Christ is real will always attract people of all ages.”
I might articulate something more along these lines: “At the end of the day, people need to experience the reality of God’s love and grace through communities seeking to embody the way of Jesus, the prophet and rabbi who declared that the ‘Kingdom of God is at hand.’ Churches that really seek to follow Jesus will attract people of all ages, but will not necessarily be popular.”
What do you think? Do conservative churches attract young people? Can we make such sharp delineations as ‘conservative’ and ‘progressive’ or ‘liberal’ among churches? Is this a useful approach? What might draw you to a particular community of faith? What might keep you away?
So, the family loaded in the van last week and headed for the hills (literally!) of North Carolina to attend the Wild Goose Festival.
What is the Wild Goose Festival? New friend Milton described it this way:
“The festival [titled after a metaphor for Celtic Christianity] is self-described as one of spirituality, justice, music, and art. People came and camped in the woods and sang and talked and ate and looked for ways to connect. To me it felt like a cross between Woodstock and church youth camp. When I looked out over the field of participants, in most any direction I saw people who didn’t look like “church folks” who were lost in wonder, love, and grace. For these four days, they got to feel understood. “Normal.” None of us was asked to do more than be ourselves and welcome one another.
And it was good.”
Someone else called it: “A Sacred and Safe Space.” I agree. We arrived in Shakori Hills with a loaded up van, drove down a dusty road under a home-made banner with a painted bird figure and the lettering for ‘Wild Goose’.
The welcome booth was a wooden shack with scenes from Where the Wild Things Are painted on it.
We set up our tent right in the center of activity – between a smaller tent venue labeled ‘Return’, and the main stage for the festival. The theme of the festival was “Exile and Return”, so speaking/music event venues were named accordingly: Shadow, Exile, Return, and so on.
We didn’t know what to expect, other than that we loved the concept, and were excited about some of the speakers and musicians slated to be there.
Let me tell you, this was a festival!
From the first talk we attended on Thursday afternoon — Tom Sine on co-living, intentional communities, and sustainability: “It is essential that we help people reimagine new ways to live. We need to discover creative, celebrative, simple ways of life that are more imaginative than the American Dream and cost less money. And we need to do it together, in community” — to the final song by Gungor, “God makes beautiful things, he makes beautiful things out of dust. God makes beautiful things, he makes beautiful things out of us,” we had an incredible time. It was a time to imagine again what God longs for us and our world.
We met people from Pittsburgh, San Francisco, New York, Texas, Atlanta, Illinois, DC, and all over the country who are hungry for a new form of faith.
We heard Phyllis Tickle review the history of the church from Constantine and the fateful Edict of Milan to today, and the impact of the birth control pill on the future of the faith. She noted that it is time to “return to the tent” — in other words, the place of the family and the home, where the stories of faith are told, shared, and lived out before the children and the next generation. We heard Jim Wallis remind us that in the Capital power is the means and power is the ends, but that God’s way is powerlessness. We heard Brian McLaren encourage us to engage those of other faiths while holding to our own with integrity (Pub Theology, anyone?). We heard Dave Andrews, a community organizer from Australia encourage us to seek centered-set communities rather than closed-set communities. He noted: “When we don’t trust the Spirit’s presence and leading, we create [unwittingly] all kinds of programs and plans and so on that actually become manipulative and oppressive.” He reminded us that wherever we are going to serve and work we have to remember that God is already there — in that people we meet already are imbued with the image of God, and the Spirit is there ahead of us. He also reminded that it is not so much we who bring Jesus, but that in fact, as we serve, we find that we are serving Jesus himself.
We heard great music from local artists as well as Over the Rhine, David Crowder, Gungor, Vince Anderson — Joey and the boys danced and played as the music filtered over us.
We wandered around and got to chat with Pete Rollins, Mark Scandrette, Phyllis Tickle, Lisa Sharon-Harper from Sojourners. Had coffee with Brian McLaren and we mused together about our new adventure in Washington DC. It really was as Frank Schaeffer noted in his own recap, Wild Goose Our Answer to Hate, in the Huffington Post:
“The names of the speakers added up to a “draw” along with the big name musical performers. But the heart of the festival wasn’t in the events but in the conversations.
For me the highlight of the festival was the fact that there was no wall of separation between us speakers and performers and everyone there. I spent 4 days talking with lots of people from all over America and other places too, about ideas but also about very personal subjects. I met Ramona who was the cook at the Indian food stand and found she is ill and has no health insurance and I was able to connect her with a friend who knew a friend at the WG fest locally to help her get the full checkup she needs. I could do that because the festival was full of the sort of people who help, love and care so for once there was someone to call.”
The list of great things we experienced is hard for me to completely recall, there were so many things:
» Watched the first public reading of Pete Rollins’ new play before it shows in New York.
» Talked with Milton, a local UCC pastor who is teaching people about the importance of meal and eating together, and how all breaking of bread in some way embodies and reflects the meal we gather around as sacrament.
Was it all perfect? No. It was hot! There were ticks. There were a couple of long nights getting the kids to bed. Some sessions didn’t connect like I had hoped. But in all, it did not disappoint.
Those concerns were minor as we heartily sang hymns while sipping pints of local microbrew during a “Beer and Hymns” session, voices rising with verve (out of tune) with the accompaniment of a tattooed keyboardist.
I met Sean, the owner of Fullsteam Brewery in Durham, NC, after a session entitled: “The Theology of Beer,” which noted the importance of creation, place and celebration in a community, and how a good brewery can be at the heart of community life. I shared our own experiences at Right Brain and he thought that was pretty cool.
The kids attended sessions where they made play-doh, created crafts, played games, and learned fun new songs: “I’m being eaten by a boa constrictor—and I don’t like it very much!”
We fell asleep each night, with our tent a stone’s throw from the main stage, to late night concerts and the sounds of celebration and conversation, music and singing.
In all, it was a total blast, and we imagined—as we joined the parade the final day, singing with faces painted, “When the Saints Go Marching In”—that when the Kingdom comes in its fullness, we’ve already had a taste.
Tonight’s portion was on failure in church planting — Rich McCullen (Missiongathering), Mike Stavlund (Common Table), and Mark Scandrette (ReImagine).
“How do you make attractive that which is not? How do you sell emptiness, vulnerability, and nonsuccess? How do you talk descent when everything is about ascent? How can you possibly market letting-go in a capitalist culture? How do you present Jesus to a Promethean mind? How do you talk about dying to a church trying to appear perfect? This is not going to work (admitting this might be my first step).”
~ Richard Rohr, “The Inherent Unmarketability of Authentic Christianity”